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Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Beck / Velvet Underground & Nico: Just another tribute album?

It’s been cited as being one of, if not, the most, influential LPs of all time. Its echoes can be heard in the music of bands ranging from the undeniably timeless (The) Doors straight, up to our modern day (The) Strokes, who have admittedly outstayed their welcome somewhat since their glory days. Of course there are a myriad of other examples but reading a list of bands can’ be too entertaining!

Then there’s the sheer volume of covers that have performed and literally thousands of bands, both high profile and otherwise, have at some time or other, ran through at least a verse or two. Today I stumbled upon a real gem that I’m very excited about, one of my favourite albums covered entirely by one of my favourite artists.

Beck and co. have covered The Velvet Underground & Nicos 1967self-titled masterpiece, a groundbreaking piece of work that stunned and was adored by the few, whilst going shunned and ignored by many a US citizen. We Brits had Pink Floyd to supply us with diversity, so the LP attracted little praise this side of the world. Like most things, the LP went on o be discovered and re-discovered a billion times around the globe, as it joyously has been once more. Let’s waste no more precious time...

From the outset, ‘Sunday Morning’ retains its haunting poignancy, effortlessly applied and beautifully accentuated with a delicate backing vocal. The true essence of the original has been captured, give or take for a diminished sense of hopelessness perhaps.

An almost trademark side-order of quirkiness is pleasingly brought into the mix with some strained and detuned instrumentation. The tempo, urgency and underpinning streetwise vibe is maintained as this honky-tonk rework of ‘I’m Waiting for the Man’ wets our appetite for what’s to come.

‘Femme Fatale’ follows the original with a suitably slack-assed approach and delivery. At first listen, you could be forgiven for mistaking it for laziness. But listening to the mix of various instruments taking turns in stealing the spotlight as overlaying vocals creep in and out, well, it’s somewhat deadpan but justified to say the least.

Next, the infamous ‘Venus in Furs’ drags its ramshackle depravity into our ear space. Unrelenting propulsion storms us through every decadent & delightfully unnerving moment. Beck provides a vocal that emulates the original, whilst adding a gentler indie-kid edge. The track ends on a typically Beck styled crash and burn close.

Flashbacks of ‘Spiritualized’ and their ‘Run Run Run’ are instantly summoned with this dare I say disco based track. Sure, the Bontempi keys might be driving this thing, but with all passengers contributing their all, it’s a success that somehow leaves the listener behind, like it exists but not for the likes of us, it’s just happy being before it chaotically escalates & closes abruptly!

‘All Tomorrows Parties’ – will it have a Nico like vocal? Sure does and it’s simply spellbinding! The graceful fluidity and underlying empathetic tone throughout are loyal servants, as they revive a classic for us all. More rock than roll... just as it should be!

The conniving essence of ‘Heroin’ and its intro are cut short this time around and the somewhat contrived vocal is initially worrying. Then it all falls into place spectacularly as the spirit of the song takes over. The musicians intermittently let rip, refusing to hold back and bringing a new subtle angle to each manic section, allowing balance to resurface with the timidity of the songs quieter reprises. Insightful banter concludes the well executed, beloved and apparently arduous track that is perhaps, the highlight of this LP.

Something of a discordant ‘There She Goes Again’ ambles onward with a playful vibe to carry it along on its mirth-fuelled way. All the seriousness of the original has been abandoned and, like it or lump it, the effort stands up in its own right.
‘I’ll Be Your Mirror’ (another personal favourite) graces us, with its inner heart shining out proudly. There are no gimmicks or tomfoolery here, just a straight-shooting homage to Nico, her vocal and the VU. If anything, it’s over all too soon and leaves us wanting.

Ladies and gentlemen... Beck does Mr. Bob Dylan! ‘Black Angel’s Death Song’ delivers an acoustic accompanied Beck vocal that successfully leaves the solid bones of a track behind, having had all its psychedelic flesh stripped away somewhat daringly. It’s quite stark in contrast, but it works and it pleases.
‘European Son’ initially follows suit, although there’s a sneaky swagger that’s tagging along for the ride. It’s adopted a sensibility too, deserting all cynicism and spite as its non-offensive self happens. No drama, no bite and some might say no need. It’s a seemingly reluctant effort that sadly screams of conceptual starvation, at what is the close of a new & ever scarce ‘must listen’ album.

If Becks ‘Mutations’ had been recorded by Trent Reznor, I guess we’d have something similar to what we have here, an engaging and overall heartfelt recording. (Call me crazy but) I can’t help but wish that Ivor Cutler could’ve played on this LP too.

Sterling Morrison RIP), Moe Tucker, Lou Reed, Nico and John Cale (the most talented of the bunch) will most certainly approve what Mr. Hansen and his band (along with the help of Nigel Godrich, Joey Waronker, Brian Lebarton, Bram Inscore, Yo, Giovanni Ribisi, Chris Holmes, and Thorunn Magnusdottir) has done here. And so will you I guess... if it’s your bag of course. for full info.

Record Club: Velvet Underground & Nico "Heroin" (Alt. Version) from Beck Hansen on Vimeo.